“The name or face may change,” goes one of Lata Mangeshkar’s evergreen songs. “But my voice is my identity, if you care to remember.” Every word in the 1977 Gulzar composition from Kinara holds true for Mangeshkar and seems to have been penned as a special love letter to the melody queen. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar, who turns 90 today, is not only her true identity but also her calling and reason for glory. And forget about bothering to remember her, as long as Bollywood music is alive anywhere in the world, Lata Mangeshkar, with her thousands of songs and more than seventy years of whopping sway over playback, will be synonymous with Bollywood music. She is, in fact, Bollywood music. All of it. The good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between.
The Bharat Ratna winner’s musical journey is extraordinary. Ditto her life. Born in 1929 to the great Marathi theatre doyen Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, singing, music and acting was in her blood. But despite the repute and creative flourishing the family was known for, the Mangeshkhars were financially poor. “Film music wasn’t hugely appreciated at home,” Mangeshkar recalled in one interview. “And my father was a conservative man. He was strict about the way we dressed, we could never wear powder or make-up. We couldn’t go out freely. Baba didn’t like us going out late at night to watch plays, not even his own productions.”
After their father’s untimely death in 1942, the Mangeshkar siblings, including the indomitable Asha Bhosle, were forced to fend for themselves. Only 13, Mangeshkar embarked on a journey that would change her life – and ours. A young girl stripped off her childhood, Mangeshkar was the sole bread-earner of the large family. She wanted to try her luck in Bollywood for a much-needed leg-up. It was common those days for actors to sing their own songs. That dynamic made Lata Mangeshkar an aberration. When she first approached Hindi cinema, back in the late 1940s-early 1950s, she faced the same dilemma that another outlier would encounter some decades later (it’s Amitabh “you’re too tall/you don’t look like a hero/AIR reject for his deep baritone” Bachchan). “Your voice is too thin,” she was told, mockingly. This was the golden age of KL Saigal, Shamshad Begum and Noor Jehan. But Master Ghulam Haider, a well-known musician of the time who later moved to Pakistan like Noor Jehan, was one of the first bigwigs to believe in Mangeshkar’s talent and gave the struggler her first break. Then came Mahal’s “Aayega aanewala”. Shot on the ‘mystery girl’ played by Madhubala as Ashok Kumar comes visiting a haunted mansion, the evocative song from the 1949 reincarnation opus launched two careers. One was the 20-year-old Lata Mangeshkar’s and the other was the film’s 16-year-old heroine Madhubala’s. Both shot to instant fame.
Over the decades, Mangeshkar’s voice, once rejected for being too thin, became the gold standard. She inspired a slew of imitators and her very own sister, the highly gifted and versatile Asha Bhosle, had to fight her way out of the Lata juggernaut. Bhosle, who was used to battling comparisons and staying under the shadow of her elder sister all her early life, once remarked, “I never wanted people to say that Asha sings like Lata. Asha and Lata are different and I like it that way.” Sai Paranjpye’s Saaz (1998) was widely rumoured to be based on the sisters’ troubled relationship and tempestuous rivalry. However, the Mangeshkars have long denied it. As for the listeners, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle represent two different schools of singing. Mangeshkar is as close to flawless as playback can get, the voice of purity and authority. Her controlled perfection runs counter to Bhosle’s cheerful vitality, full of energy and edge. Mangeshkar is the proverbial good girl to Bhosle’s bad girl. When the elder’s pristine voice was reserved for the ‘heroine’, the feisty younger one (Bhosle often uses the Hindi term ‘ziddi’ to sum up her personality) took the leftovers and made them her own. Bhosle became the poster girl for cabarets and racier disco numbers, the Dum Maaro Dums and sundry Helen club items. These were songs that would never go to THE Lata Mangeshkar, for their loose morality and sexy content.
India’s highly-beloved Nightingale is divinity personified but even the Goddess has her cynics. Due to her near-total dominance over playback for seven decades, Mangeshkar has often been accused of “stealing other singers’ songs and effectively, their entire careers. When the recent Ranu Mondal controversy erupted (the impoverished singer became a viral star after singing Mangeshkar’s “Ek pyar ka nagma hai”), India’s favourite crooner drew flak for her “imitation is not reliable and be original” comment. Clearly, for Mangeshkar, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ phrase doesn’t cut it. One National Award-winning editor and writer was particularly disgruntled. In his trenchant tweet, he complained that Mangeshkar’s response to Mondal “lacks grace. Reminds me of my childhood when original talents like Runa Laila, Suman Kalyanpur, Usha Uthup & Sadhna Sargam didn’t get their due because Lataji ruled the roost. Only imitators survived, somewhat.”
On her part, Mangeshkar has always projected modesty and sincerity in her public dealings. Indeed, she’s like that big tree around which nothing could grow. But what is the logic in faulting the big tree for being big? Her fans argue that she was far ahead of her competitors, by miles and miles. It’s true that no other singer in the annals of Hindi cinema has had as wide-ranging and versatile a playback profile as Lata Mangeshkar. She’s sung it all, done it all. Hugely self-effacing and down-to-earth, the doyen has never taken credit for her success. “My voice is the gift of God,” she declared, in one interview.
Even masters are in awe of her. “We are lucky to be alive in the same era as Lata,” gushed lyricist and writer Gulzar in one of the many Lata Mangeshkar documentaries. “She’s a part of every Indian’s daily life.” Put simply, she’s the voice of India. Her golden jubilee songs tie us to our own collective past and will guide us into the future. We can never get tired of listening to her and even though the songs are the same something about her magical voice continues to surprise listeners and remind them of purity and divinity that makes her the supreme Goddess in the world of singing.
Yet, the Goddess is human, after all. As spectacularly public as her voice is Lata Mangeshkar, the person, the woman, the householder, the emotion, remains an enigma to her millions of followers. Hers is not just a life, it’s a saga. It’s not a career, it’s a continuity. Can you think of another songstress who was adored and admired by generation after generation, without a break? Ask any millennial, and there’s every chance his/her grandfather was a Lata fan, his/her parents might have been and he/she was one, too. She’s a family deity for millions of marquee-worshipping Indians. The one and only Lata Mangeshkar has achieved all this without the need to ever update her voice and reinvent or refashion her image to suit the times. The times have changed to adapt to her and to appropriate her. Today, she’s an intriguing cultural force, the behemoth and vessel of Bollywood dreams. Now, circling back to the line ‘Gar yaad rahe’ in “Naam gum jaayega”. So hugely misleading. Gulzar’s gotta be kidding. Care to remember her? She’s here for posterity.
On her 90th birthday, spend the day listening to these five Lata songs. Of course, there are hundreds and you could argue that these might not be her best. Still, these five should be enough to carry you through the day. Happy birthday to Lata didi and happy jukeboxing to fans and readers.
Luka chuppi from Rang De Basanti (2006)
If the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra blockbuster became the symbol of social protest and youth-led activism then Mangeshkar’s duet with A R Rahman was the soulful anthem that struck fire to the candlelit marches. Mangeshkar’s voice is in her mature and mellow phase, but the vitality and spark is still very much there. The presence of old-timer Waheeda Rehman – the other Rahman – adds further poignancy.
Tujhse naraaz nahin zindagi from Masoom (1983)
Penned by the peerless Gulzar, Mangeshkar’s plea to life and relationships, its meaning and complexities, the sharp twists and turns is a Bollywood touchstone. The song beautifully mirrors the situation of the demure and contented housewife Indu (Shabana Azmi) who suddenly finds herself living with an ugly reality – her husband’s illegitimate child. But when the mother in her speaks, finally pitying the child’s plight, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur relies on the eternal Lata.
Lag jaa gale from Woh Kaun Thi (1964)
Mangeshkar revered Madan Mohan. She called him “bhaiyya” and tied rakhi every year to the famous composer. Though Lata-Madan combination has produced such winners as “Zara si aahat”, “Ruke ruke se kadam” and “Tu jahan jahan”, “Lag jaa gale” is their crowning achievement, a deep-dyed classic that is a favourite of millions and continues to delight listeners of all ages.
Aye mere watan ke logo from a fund raiser event (1963)
In the age of muscular nationalism, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and Kavi Pradeep’s words unite rather than divide – a cautionary tale and a sharp reminder that those who died on the border were “Indians” first. The powerful song commemorates the sacrifices of the Indo-Sino war heroes of 1962 and reportedly brought the then-Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to tears.
Allah tero naam from Hum Dono (1961)
This is one of the finest prayers in one of the finest Hindi music albums ever. The message of peace and love touched by Lata Mangeshkar’s divine power is more relevant today than ever. Paying a tribute to the song in 2018, Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan had said, “Lataji’s unique style will continue to inspire musicians in generations to come.” This would make for an intriguing double bill with “Luka chuppi”. For, in their own different ways, the two songs have Lata Mangeshkar guiding us gently into the night, a soothing balm to war and loss.